So what exactly is modesty? It's really interesting, considering the emphasis in the current church, that I wasn't really able to find anything in the scriptures on the subject. A quick search of the scriptures led to a single use of the word modest, in 1 Timothy, Ch 2. Here, the use seems to fall in line with the traditional definition of modesty, which has nothing to do with dress per say. It's about being humble. About avoiding what the Book of Mormon calls fine twined linens and costly apparel. About not being prideful.
Looking through the scriptures, I find lots of negative comments about clothing generally, and some neutral ones like admonitions not to worry about it. When it's not mentioned negatively, any positive views are often talked about only in reference to clothing the naked. Here, it seems, it's more about providing something to someone who is poor, no different than providing housing to the homeless.
So I guess one question that comes up is this: When did modesty start to mean dressing in a way to conceal certain body parts? Why has the church focused so much energy on this issue which, to me at least, seems to find little scriptural support? The scriptures that are cited to go promote the notion of clothing to conceal our bodies seem like they are being stretched a bit.
Most commonly, the reference to Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden is given as a reason we wear clothes. Upon eating of the fruit, they become aware of their nakedness. Actually, this is pointed out to them by Satan. (As referenced in the question from God, "who told thee that thou wast naked," as well as in the Endowment) God, finding them naked, doesn't seem bothered by it in the least. Rather, he seems concerned as to how they came to this realization. They seem to have encountered shame for the first time, and that shame did not come from above. Satan is the one who tells them to hide, and to use the fig leaves.
God does, later, make clothing for them. However, this is not so they will be properly dressed to be in His presence, but rather to prepare them to be sent out into the world. At this point, we're just talking about a man and his wife, so I still see no reason to believe that God had any moral reason for making them cover up. (Let me qualify that by saying that there was probably an important symbolic element in it... in that the clothes were made of skins, necessitating the animal sacrifice to produce them, symbolizing the atonement) Rather, the simplest reading to me is that a loving father, upon kicking his kids out of the house, gives them what they'll need to keep warm outside.
So what about garments? Sacred clothing has been around since the beginning, but garments as we know them have been around since the time of Joseph Smith. I'll try and find the source, but I remember reading a quote from the First Presidency (way back when.... early 1900's) saying that the garment had been revealed to Joseph, and that to alter it would never happen, unless a specific revelation were received on the subject. Just a few years later, doing a little history they discovered that in fact Joseph didn't receive a revelation designating the style of the garment, but rather it was designed by a group of women who showed it to him, which he signed off on. Based on that new info, the (new) First Presidency introduced changes to the style of the garment, shortening the legs and arms, allowing buttons, getting rid of the collars, etc. Later (much) they again approved the switch to a two-piece garment, this time it was done quietly however, with no need to explain that such an action was permissible, since it was no longer the position of the church that the garment style was designated by revelation.
That brings me to the poor logic that many members use when trying to explain modesty. They try to define modesty as dressing in a way that would cover the garments. They also (in my experience, people tend to do both) explain one of the main purposes of the garment as being to keep us dressing modestly. That's a nice circular argument for you... "you need to wear X, because you need to dress modestly (where modesty = wearing x). That's no argument at all.
Another problem with this reasoning is what was mentioned before... the garment changes. If modesty is something we've been commanded to do, (I sure think so) then how do you explain the changes to the garment, to accommodate changes in fashion?
Another issue I see in the church (which was discussed at length on some other blogs) is the issue of enforcing garment-covering=modesty even on people who are unendowed. Teaching the youth (and even toddlers) that they are immodest if they are wearing something that wouldn't cover garments is such a stretch to me. I can't find anything scriptural to come remotely close to backing that up!
Which brings me back to what it means to be modest. Modesty is about an attitude. It's about seeking to make ourselves more than we are, to get more attention. That can be done by dressing in a way that makes ourselves into sexual objects. It can also be done (as is the frequent use in the scriptures) by simply the clothes that we chose to wear... having nothing at all to do with sexuality. We are told of the wickedness of those that begin to wear "fine apparel" and all so that some one will "look at me!"
I'll have to break this off here, and continue later. We'll go into body shame vs. modesty, and even delve into public nudity and it's relation to the gospel in Part 2.